Brian O’Driscoll had an incredible finish to his Ireland career with a Six Nations and although he had to go off injured in the Pro12 final, he still ended his time with Leinster with a trophy in his hands. But he is the exception, not the rule.
If Paul O’Connell ends his career after the World Cup, he might have a fairytale ending too, but for 99% of us, that’s not the case.
Of course I would have loved my career to end like Brian’s, not for me but for my family — it would have been class to have a DVD of that for the kids.
But because of the position I played in, I was never going to announce my retirement in advance. As an out-half and a goal-kicker, you have direct responsibility for the outcome of games, so nothing more than that is ever the focus.
I also had a competitor for the number 10 shirt in Johnny Sexton, so I was in and out of the Ireland side for 18 months, just trying to do my best for the team and make a positive contribution. I wasn’t a guaranteed starter until the end, like Brian or Paul.
With Munster, it was different. We lost a Heineken Cup semi-final in Montpellier but it was a great game and a lovely way to go. With Ireland, it was horrendous because I didn’t get the opportunity to finish on a good note or by making a positive contribution. But I don’t have any issue with that, that’s sport.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think Darce’s time with Ireland is finished. With Luke Fitzgerald and Keith Earls, Joe Schmidt clearly has options to manipulate his back-line but if there’s an injury to Robbie Henshaw, for me, he’s the next man in at number 12. The person who will decide that is Gordon himself — you don’t achieve what he has by going down without a fight. In that respect, Leinster’s Heineken Cup quarter-final against Bath is huge for him.
So why was he excluded from the extended squad? I don’t think he impressed sufficiently in the first week of Six Nations camp, and the decision to cut him was Schmidt at his ruthless best. He’s showing that to have a competitive squad, he can’t be suggesting to the younger players that he’s prepared to carry the senior ones if they’re not performing.
Darce has probably been trying a bit too hard to impress; we’ve all been guilty of that.
At the moment, he’s not going to the World Cup, but a big game will open the door for him again, maybe even a starting position.
He’s the one fella who, over the past 13 years, has shown he can match the southern hemisphere teams physically in that 12 slot. He’s not a big guy but he has fantastic ability at ruck time, his explosiveness and footwork in tight situations is phenomenal when you see it at close quarters.
Funnily enough, that midfield area will be the most interesting battle when Ireland visit the Millennium Stadium tomorrow.
Wales have a far more experienced back-line than England had a fortnight ago; Jamie Roberts is a guy whose form can be average throughout a season, but he has a history of being able to peak for the big games for Racing Metro, Wales and the Lions, which is a massive compliment to him. Jonathan Davies, George North and Roberts will be the most physical backs on the pitch tomorrow.
The Welsh out-half Dan Biggar has been exceptional in wins over Scotland and France, and he has the footwork and the passing ability to bring his centres onto the gain-line, or pass behind them to get North on ball.
He’s probably still 12 months off his peak, but now that Biggar has made the jersey his own, he’s obviously benefiting from it and consequently, we are seeing him influencing games to a greater extent.
What I’ll be most interested in, however, is how they defend. This will be just one of the mind games between Schmidt and Gatland as they attempt to figure out each others’ weaknesses. Wales’ blitz defence has been a key part of their game-plan, but I wonder will wingers North and Liam Williams continue to come up as part of it or whether Davies will be the last man.
If the wingers come up, Ireland have proven they have the kicking game to hurt teams.
Much has been made of how contestable Ireland’s kicks are too. England’s back three made errors and dropped balls, and those turnovers are massive in the modern game.
It just goes to show what a home crowd and a big occasion can do to visiting teams and Ireland have to face that tomorrow.
Nonetheless, the reason that strategy has proven successful is mindset. Most teams will box kick and hope they retrieve the ball — Ireland box kick and expect to win the ball — there’s fellas selected specifically for that reason. Look at Felix Jones on the bench, he’s extremely brave in the air and you can see Schmidt being loyal to and rewarding guys who have worked on their ability to “win scraps”, as he says.
In that regard, Simon Zebo’s performance against England was probably the biggest success story of that game, beyond Henshaw.
He’s really worked hard to develop that element of his game and is prepared to work hard too — running a kick-off back into a brick wall isn’t easy, but he always found space and a soft shoulder. We’ll need more of the same tomorrow.
I think we’ll win, because although Wales are extremely dangerous when they turn up to play, the one thing I can’t sort out in my head is how they were 10-0 up against England but went on to lose, and lose badly. They thought they’d beat England easily, but had the game gone on another 20 minutes, they’d have been completely blitzed.
Warren Gatland has been quieter than usual this week and that’s why — talking them up before the England game didn’t work, so maybe he’s learned his lesson.
Smart coaches don’t usually make the same mistake, but whether he can outsmart Schmidt may prove the most fascinating element tomorrow.
Go n-éirí on bóthar libh.